Flying with autism

3 November 2017

Dear friend,

A year ago, I was prompted to write a blog post and an email to Schiphol airport asking for assistance for autistic fliers. A difficult experience flying alone with the boys had left me feeling disappointed and asking the question; Who deserves priority?

Whilst patiently cueing for passport, I watched priority travelers whizzing through their separate section...
We waited while people, who should know better, jostled for position...
I don't want to highlight my boys disability. I just want to reduce his stress (and truth be told mine too). How hard would it be to make invisible disabilities a priority?
Surely we have got our priorities wrong when only those who can afford to buy the best treatment get it?

Much to my surprise I received a telephone call from customer support services and spoke with a really lovely man named Kees Hoekstra (father to an autistic daughter) who took on my complaint but also went further. He has worked very hard to improve the flight experiences of people with autism at Schiphol.

Kees introduced me to the DPNA code and we were the first Autistic family to try it out last year. (You can read about our experience here.) As an EXPAT family we are regular fliers and have used the DPNA code several times over the last year.

How is support for autistic fliers working a year later?

It is worth noting that different airports have different systems and it is important to visit their websites and find out what the rules are.

KLM: Schiphol airport: There is no information on the Special assistance page of the KLM website (or on the Schiphol website) for invisible disabilities but the DPNA code can be used. At least 48 hours before the flight you must ring KLM Cares and asked for the DPNA (Disabled Passenger Needs Assistance) code to be applied to your flight.

On the morning of your flight you must present to the assistance desk at Schiphol.  The member of staff will ask what type of support you require. Be clear, do not just ask for Autism support but be specific e.g. We require help through the queues particularly at security. You will be allocated a member of staff who will take you to your gate.

If you speak to the staff members at your gate, they will ensure that you can board the plane first.

On return to Amsterdam we have experienced a few teething problems. Firstly there wasn't an assistant waiting for us in the terminal but more recently the cabin crew have asked if we require assistance and have arranged someone to greet us. During the last flight the crew weren't sure if we should take the bus to the terminal or not which resulted in a long wait.

Newcastle airport has worked with the North East Autism society to improve their services for autistic people. Autistic passengers can download an Autism Passport. You must present yourself at the assistance desk but can then proceed alone. At Newcastle all staff are trained to recognise the passport and then fast track autistic passengers through the priority lanes and the queues at security. You must keep the passport visible (hold it up). You are advised to get to the gate early so you can board first.

Leeds Bradford Airport together with Leeds Autism services have produced a guide for autistic passengers. At Leeds Bradford they use lanyards for passengers with invisible disabilities. All staff are trained to recognise the Lanyard and (as at Newcastle) passengers use the fast track system to bypass all queues. If you speak to the staff members at your gate, they will ensure that you can board the plane first.

I am absolutely delighted to see airports adopting these changes as they are making a huge difference to people with autism and their families. In my son's words...

 Mummy I really don't like the airport it is just too busy and noisy but staying out of the queues is so much better, I feel a lot less stressed!

I would love to see all airports adopt the lanyard or passport system. I prefer to have a visible identification method for invisible disabilities as we have had some other passengers make comments or stare at us when we have bypassed the queues because they don't realise why. Being able to hold the passport in a noticeable way (wave it at rude people) can encourage them to be more patient.

Having an identification method also means we don't need to rely on waiting for staff to arrive or worry about how our son will deal with a stranger assisting him (although all staff have been amazing!) We can go at our son's pace through the airport but using the fast track/priority routes so the queues and his stress are significantly less.

Thank you to all of the people who have worked hard to set up these systems and make real changes for autistic passengers! I am so glad I wrote that email a year ago because our experience of flying is so much better! 

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